international analysis and commentary

Reading the future: not our job


Political science is in crisis. This is the message that Marta Dassù conveys in a recent article in which she laments the failure of political scientists to predict the Egyptian crisis – or for that matter the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty years ago. Yet, should political scientists be involved in the business of predicting the future? After all, intelligence analysts and diplomats on the ground also failed to predict the Jasmine revolution sweeping through the Arab world. If people who gather information and analyze what is going in Egypt did not see the protests that were coming, what hope do political scientists with less resources and more commitments have of foretelling future developments?

Whilst I agree that political scientists have done a poor job of reading the future, I do not think this should be their main job. I do not even think that such work would be wise, given the spectacular failure of previous forecasts – such as Japan becoming a threat to American supremacy.

Instead, political science should engage in two main activities: educating the public and helping to shape government policies. The first task is easier to do. Political scientists may work in universities, in which case education is straightforward. They may also hold positions in think tanks, research centers or similar institutions, producing policy papers, briefings and other publications. Some may argue that political scientists should reach the widest audience possible. Many others contend that they should concentrate on policy-making elites, given the little interest in politics that most people show. Regardless of one’s view on this, education should be one of the goals of all good political scientists who do not consider themselves to be detached from the rest of society.

Helping to shape government policies is more contentious, and certainly more complicated to achieve. There is a school of thought that maintains that political science should not be involved in policy debates. The argument is that policy making and objective observation and explanation of events are mutually incompatible. Policy making involves making choices, often within severe time constraints. The famous case of the John F. Kennedy administration’s decision on how to act during the Cuban Missile Crisis is symptomatic of this. There are those who feel that the job of political scientists should have never been to advise the American government on how to act, but rather to analyze its actions afterwards and infer general explanations from this analysis.

However, an increasing number of political scientists do want to be involved in policy. In this case, the most obvious path is to become a politician or policy maker. Michael Ignatieff, the current leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State during the George W. Bush administration, are examples of this. In both cases their jobs have granted them greater influence than they could have ever had whilst in academia.

What about those political scientists who do not want to get so directly involved in policy making but still want to influence it? In this case, they have the option of talking to policy makers directly. A recent piece in the New York Times discussed how several Middle East experts were summoned by the White House to discuss how to deal with the crisis in Egypt. They may not have been able to predict events taking place in the country, but they are certainly helping to shape the response from the Obama administration. However, this requires proximity to policy making centers and regular contact with decision makers. Washington, DC is considered by many to be the place where this type of rapport between political scientists and decision makers is most developed, but it is not the only one. In countries such as Brazil, Japan or South Korea regular contact with practitioners is common.

But political scientists should not only wait to be invited to talk to public officials. They need to be proactive. Policy makers often complain that they do not have enough time to go over all the briefs prepared by their staffs, never mind reading longer pieces by others. Hence, political scientists need to engage not only with top-level officials, but with their staffs as well. They need to partake in conferences and other events that involve those in a position to make decisions. Furthermore, they need to write op-eds and short articles easily accessible to policy makers. Dr. Dassù’s recent article on the Egyptian crisis is an example of this. In short, political scientists seeking to have any role in shaping government policies ought to look for all possible ways to get involved in the public arena, rather than hiding in their offices hoping for someone to pick up on their latest great idea.

Political scientists engaging with public officials do a service not only to themselves, but to society in general and to policy makers as well. They can bring new viewpoints, usually less contingent on recent developments and more reflexive, objective and analytical than those of public officials serving their government. This can broaden the set of perspectives taken into consideration by policy makers when making a decision.

So the crisis implied by Dr. Dassù need not be. If political scientists want to predict future crises, then their efforts are bound to fail. Some have been talking about the collapse of North Korea for almost twenty years now. One day they might be right. But this is not prediction. This is repeating an idea hoping that one day it will become true. Instead, educating the public and helping to shape public policies are two excellent ways of making political science relevant beyond the walls of an ivory tower that can no longer afford to have its doors closed to the rest of society.

Read also:
Egypt and the political science crisis
by Marta Dassù
The Architects, the Oracles and the Ones
by Pasquale Ferrara
The positivist illusion
by Michele Testoni
The shocks that always make a difference
by Ian O. Lesser
No prediction failure – but a lack of sound policy analysis
by Gregorio Bettiza

Read also in Italian:
Previsioni e profezie
di Angelo Panebianco, Corriere della Sera
Per capire la crisi serve una laurea in buon senso
di Raghuram Rajan, Il Sole 24ORE